UK shoppers ignorant of online rights

But Brits busiest e-shoppers in Europe

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UK web users are Europe's biggest online shoppers but are not aware of their consumer rights when it comes to e-commerce, a government survey has found.

UK shoppers spent £38bn online in 2009, 10 per cent of the total amount spent overall, making them the European Union's biggest online spenders, according to figures from the Centre for Retail Research and the Retail Sales Statistical Bulletin.

But despite this high level of activity, a study conducted for the government has shown that shoppers are less likely to return faulty goods when they have been bought online and are largely unaware that they have even more consumer rights for internet sales than they do for high street ones.

The survey found that over 60 per cent of online shoppers were less likely to return goods purchased online than ones bought on the high street. This is despite the fact that online sales are subject to additional protections for consumers compared to shop sales.

Under the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations, which are based on the European Union's Distance Selling Directive, online purchases are subject to a seven-day 'cooling off' period during which a consumer can cancel an order without giving a reason.

"To cancel your order, you must tell the seller in writing – by letter, fax or email," said advice from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). "If sending a letter, send the letter by registered post, so you can prove that you sent it and track its progress. If you have already paid for the goods or services, the seller must refund your money as soon as possible and within 30 days of you cancelling the agreement."

These rights are unlikely to be taken up by most online shoppers, though. The survey of 3,000 adults found that 77 per cent of people are unaware that their rights are different depending on whether they bought goods online or in shops. It found that 13 per cent of shoppers are not sure of the online purchasing rights.

"There has been a huge revolution in how people buy goods," said Consumer Minister Kevin Brennan. "We are now Europe’s biggest online shoppers, so it’s important we all know that most online goods can be returned with no questions asked within seven days. We want confident consumers who can assert their rights and get a good deal."

"People who are knowledgeable about their rights are more likely to get a fair deal, save money and resolve problems when things go wrong," said Michele Shambrook, operations manager for the Government's consumer helpline Consumer Direct.

The government warned, though, that there are some goods whose purchase cannot be cancelled in the seven day cooling off period.

"This doesn’t apply in some situations, for example if the goods were personalised for you, were perishable, or are not in the same condition as when they were delivered," said the BIS statement.

The BIS advice also emphasised that while a receipt was not essential for returning goods, retailers are allowed to demand proof of purchase, which could be a bank or credit card statement showing that you had bought the goods.

The report was not available at the time of writing.

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